Law & Crime Opinion Politics & Protest

Simon Cheng’s TV ‘confession’ reveals the truth about China’s coercive legal system

By Peter Humphrey

Last week, I wrote a lengthy article about my fight against Beijing’s abusive practice of using forced and falsified televised confessions extracted from prisoners under duress and torture to pervert the course of justice. I remarked that, since my unprecedented filing of a regulatory complaint against Chinese state television in London last November, China had not paraded another foreigner on TV in this manner.

In the moment my article was published in The Diplomat magazine, I was proven wrong. They did it again. They aired a crude video clip of Simon Cheng, former UK Consulate worker in Hong Kong, falsely and forcibly “confessing” to some peculiar alleged crimes. Cheng vanished during a business trip to Shenzhen across the border in August. He was detained incognito and released a fortnight or so later after a diplomatic contest with London.

simon cheng cctv confession people's daily prostitution massage parlour

Photo: People’s Daily screenshot.

This broadcast was carried by CGTN, the international offshoot of China Central Television (CCTV), a propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party. It was CCTV and CGTN that I filed a complaint against a year ago over their broadcasts of me locked in a cage forcibly and falsely “confessing” to crimes I had not committed, in 2013 and 2014.

The British broadcast regulator Ofcom is still investigating my complaint along with a subsequent complaint filed by Angela Gui, the daughter of publisher Gui Minhai. On Ofcom’s own initiative, it is also investigating CGTN’s broadcasting of fake news about Hong Kong.

The UK’s broadcasting law, policed by Ofcom, has crystal-clear, black and white provisions on issues of privacy, fairness, factuality and standards of content that must be upheld by all TV outfits licenced by this regulator to broadcast in the UK. CCTV and CGTN hold licences to broadcast on two channels to UK airwaves, and the Simon Cheng fake confession was aired on one of those, China24, while a companion clip was broadcast on CGTN’s YouTube channel.

Not only did CGTN yet again violate the UK broadcasting code, and equivalent broadcasting laws in other countries, it also violated Chinese law and the Chinese constitution, which, believe it or not, guarantees fair and transparent trials.

cgtn

CGTN on social media. Photo: Twitter.

The Simon Cheng broadcast was intended to counter a slew of articles in the international media revealing that he was tortured, as he was forced to sign false confessions related to soliciting prostitutes. The combating of accurate and factual news in international media about why I had been detained, as well as to falsely incriminate me, was also the reason for my own false TV confession in 2013.

Apart from being illegal, the Cheng broadcast was also revealing in ways that his Chinese police captors and tormentors may not have realised – or cared about – at the time.

Cheng’s brutal treatment tells us much about the Chinese dictatorship’s approach to justice. His mistreatment, globally decried as a human rights abuse, and his false charge, absolutely typify the Chinese police methodology – both by the Public Security Bureau (the police) and the Ministry of State Security. It is fully representative of their coercive and abusive legal system. To me, Cheng’s story which he told to media a few days before the CGTN broadcast, is totally credible because “I have been there”.

The abuse described by Cheng is the pervasive norm of Chinese police behaviour. They know no other way. The Public Security Bureaus and the Ministry of State Security rely exclusively on forcing confessions and statements from detainees and from so-called witnesses to obtain a conviction at any cost. They do not rely on any forensic or real police investigative skills; they rely on menace, duress and torture.

The entire legal system in China is one of coercive force, not of judicial process.

televised confessions

An artists’ impression of how Peter Humphrey’s televised confession was set up. Artwork: Alexey Garmash.

When I was a prisoner, I was interrogated every day by multiple interrogators. During interrogation, I was always locked inside a steel cage, locked into a metal chair, in handcuffs, with no legal counsel present. My thumb was then pressed into red seal ink, forcing me to thumbprint statements that bore little relation to what I had said.

While in detention, the authorities do everything to crush the human spirit in order to extort a confession, in order to justify a detention that has nothing to do with whatever charge they publicly announce.

They hold the prisoner in sordid conditions, without civilised hygiene facilities, without heating or air-conditioning, without hot water, without proper nutrition, in crowded unfurnished cells, freezing in winter, like an oven in summer, withholding medical treatment, blocking access to lawyers when it is most needed, barring contact with family, no phone calls, no correspondence, lights on 24/7 preventing sleep, forced to squat for hours on end, with guards yelling at them all the time.

Detainees in so-called pre-trial detention centres are subjected to what is effectively a punishment regime from day one and treated as guilty before any charges, indictment or trial, even though China’s own “laws” provide for presumption of innocence before proven guilty by a court, a gross fallacy.

Peter Humphrey

Peter Humphrey’s two confessions on CCTV. Photo: Screenshot.

With non-citizens, during interrogations, they also often try to get the prisoner to admit to false charges of espionage. They did this to me. Predictably, they did this to Simon Cheng.

They tried to get him to admit falsely that the UK was funding and organizing the Hong Kong protest movement, code for undermining Chinese national security, a capital offence. With me, they tried to charge me with spying in Xinjiang, because of remarks in a country risk analysis report written by one of my colleagues for our clients. It was pathetic. I resisted and luckily destroyed these accusations very quickly. They have also done this to the two Canadians being held in Beijing for the past year, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

When the police grabbed Cheng at the frontier checkpoint turnstiles, they told him “this is orders from the top”. It is not the norm for a person suspected of soliciting a prostitute to be arrested on “orders from the top”, code for high-level Chinese leadership. From the very beginning, this slip of the tongue made it clear this was not about prostitution.

The police inadvertently disclosed that the charge against Cheng of soliciting prostitution was utter nonsense. Everybody in China knows only the organising of prostitution is a real crime in China. Brothel keepers, pimps and human traffickers who are not protected by the PSB get stiff prison terms. But soliciting a prostitute in China is a minor offence that usually earns a smack on the hand, just a few weeks in detention, and usually does not go to court.

The exception is when the detainee has been a special target of the regime all along, or the target of some kind of revenge action by somebody with friends in the police, and then the prostitution charge is just a pretext for victimisation.

forced confessions collage

A collage of forced confessions. Photo: Handout.

That was so when the critical American political blogger Charles Xue Manzi was paraded on Chinese television in 2013. And this is the case with Cheng. He was targeted as a means to attack the UK, a critic of the harsh anti-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong.

In addition, the authorities as reported by CGTN have admitted they had him under surveillance for days. The PSB never expend such resources on somebody who is just suspected of visiting prostitutes. They would only go to this effort if the person was a target for some other reason.

In this case, he was surveilled because they wanted a pretext to arrest and rough up someone working for the British. In other words, he was a scapegoat and instrument in an attack on the UK. He was singled out because of his employment at the Consulate. His detention was classic Chinese diplomatic-hostage taking aimed at punishing Hong Kong’s former master.

The CGTN footage from surveillance video showed Cheng transacting at a reception desk and following a woman down a corridor and into a room. If this was indeed a brothel, it begs the question how and why it exists after President Xi Jinping ordered a crackdown against prostitution after coming to power in late 2012. How on earth can such a brothel still exist if President Xi shut them all down and if prostitution is illegal?

simon cheng cctv confession people's daily prostitution massage parlour

Photo: People’s Daily screenshot.

The answer is plain. Every Chinese knows that most brothels are either owned by or protected by police, and the crackdown left many or most of them untouched. Neither CGTN nor the authorities have explained why it was not the brothel that was subjected to “legal action” but one particular visitor among the thousands who use this house of ill repute every month.

What China has done through this incident, aided and abetted by state television, is to prove for the world to see that there is no transparency, fairness or genuine due process in China.

Former British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has called on the UK government to issue a British passport to Simon Cheng because his life is now in danger.

I would also urge Ofcom to investigate Cheng’s subjection to forced and falsified televised confession aired by CGTN on UK airwaves.


Peter Humphrey has been a China specialist for 44 years. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center and a Research Affiliate of King’s College London. He was a foreign correspondent for 20 years — 17 of them with Reuters. He later spent 15 years as an anti-fraud due-diligence consultant for Western corporations in China, including 10 years with his own company, ChinaWhys. He spent two years imprisoned in Shanghai on charges of “illegally acquiring personal information”, which have been widely recognised as false.

Simon Cheng's TV 'confession' reveals the truth about China's coercive legal system